Monday, July 25 2005
New Straits Times
CATCHING UP WITH:
Tan Sri Chong Hon Nyan
Tan Sri Chong Hon Nyan
has worn many hats in more than five decades of service to the
nation. A product of the British colonial administration, he
was the consummate government servant, an exemplary MCA
politician and a man known for walking the straight and narrow
path. Chong talks to LIM THOW BOON about his life and
THE assistant resettlement
secretary did not know it but the detainee who escaped from
his work gang that fateful day at the height of the Emergency
would re-emerge as one of the country’s most wanted communist
The date: March 18, 1951. The place: Malacca.
The official: Chong Hon Nyan (now Tan Sri).
Entrusted with the difficult, and sometimes
risky, task of rounding up scattered groups of Chinese and
relocating them in new villages, Chong had been asked to set
up a settlement in the jungles of Ayer Keroh. The idea was a
key strategy of London’s pointman in Malaya, General Sir Gerald
Templer, who sought to cut the communists’ access to their
recruiting grounds and sources of food supply.
That Sunday, a
10-man work gang of communist sympathisers under detention
assigned to him was chopping trees and clearing
belukar. "Among them was one Rashid Mydin, who used to
work in Perak Hydro. We were making preparations to build
At 11am, Chong left a Chinese Affairs officer
in charge and took off to see his fiancee, Eu Ngoh, now his
LOVING COUPLE: Chong relaxing with
his wife, Eu Ngoh.
"About noon," Chong said, "Rashid asked
for permission to answer the call of nature." He walked away
and that was the last they ever saw of him.
Rashid resurfaced later as the
right-hand man of Malayan Communist Party boss, Chin
Peng. Meanwhile, Chong was staring at the doghouse or,
worse. "I was interrogated by the Special Branch," he
said. "You see, Rashid left a note which said, ‘Chong,
thanks for all the help’.
"Help? What help? I merely treated him
fairly like any other human being." On hindsight, he recalled
that there were several tell-tale signs that Rashid was up to
something that day. "Although he
acted normally, he had on a watch which was unusual among the
detainees - and he kept checking the time with me.
"He had rubber shoes on while the rest
wore slippers. He wore a shirt and trousers while the others
were in T-shirts and shorts. "And to top it all, he had sought
permission to keep a rubber tree that had been chopped down.
"He said he wanted to use it for firewood, and this suggested
he was not going anywhere."
Those were tough times indeed
for civil servants. This was more so for the Chinese officers
who were looked upon by the communist terrorists and their
sympathisers as lackeys of the British.
He was later
drafted into the Home Guard and among his duties was to carry
out a census. "I had a police escort and I was more
afraid of the escort than the communists. But they turned out
to be good fellows."
A few years later came Merdeka.
When Tunku Abdul Rahman returned from the London talks
with independence in the bag, he wanted to announce the good
news in Malacca. "I don’t know why he chose Malacca,
probably because it is a historical city," Chong said.
"And he wanted an open car. Now, where on earth do we
find an open car in Malacca?" He then remembered that a
Chinese towkay owned such a vehicle and he borrowed it for
Tunku’s victory ride.
Chong, a product of Raffles College and
Cambridge University, was born in Kuala Lumpur and had his early
education at the Victoria Institution. He
started his working life as a teacher in Malacca and later
entered the colonial service.
After independence, he
joined the Malayan Civil Service and rose to become the
secretary- general of the Agriculture and Finance Ministries
before venturing into politics in 1974. In the same
year, he won the Batu Berendam parliamentary seat in Malacca
on an MCA ticket and remained an MP until 1986. He was
the secretary-general of the MCA from l977 to 1985. He
joined the Government as the Deputy Finance Minister and later
became Health Minister and then Transport Minister before
retiring in 1986.
Now, 81, he leads a quiet life with
his wife of 50 years in a spacious bungalow in the affluent
enclave of Bukit Ledang, off Jalan Duta in Kuala Lumpur.
But for failing eyesight and a pair of legs that are
getting weary, he is as good as a man his age can be.
He takes daily walks round the serene tree-dotted
neighbourhood. "I used to play golf, but gave it up 10
years ago because of these legs."
He spends most of his
time pottering around the garden which is covered with trees,
bushes and flowering plants. The orchids are his pride and
joy. But life has not always been quiet and orderly.
He had been in the dumps, too. He said: "When I first
retired, I didn’t know what to do. I was bewildered. I was
depressed ... I was close to panic. "So, I went to
Britain where my two children were and spent three months
On his return, he joined the board of some
companies at the invitation of friends. Except for J.P. Morgan
and AP Land, he has since relinquished all the directorships.
Asked for his views on the civil service now
compared to what it was during his days, Chong went back to
the British administration time. "We were then told about the
virtues of being independent. Our duty is to give the best
professional advice we can. "We should not try to
please anyone and not get involved in political decisions,
which is so much a part of the everyday scene today.
"But then, things have changed. The British
administration was nothing more than a Collector of Revenue
and its main concern was to keep law and order, and not
He will always remember what his boss
told him. "He said ‘When you make a recommendation to
me about anything, I want you to summarise the pros and cons
in such a way that all I have to do is to say yes or no and
the summary should not be more than two paragraphs’.
"That was how they taught us to operate - separate the
chaff from the grain and get to the gist of an argument."
Chong is a strong believer in the use of
English to promote greater cohesion in society. "The decline in
the standard of English is making it difficult for everybody
... some segments of society cannot compete. You may
be excellent in many fields, IT whatever, but if you don’t
have the linguistics, the communication skills in English, you
will be left out."
An avid reader - nowadays, he is
into modern history - he is saddened that young people of
today are not reading as much as the older generation used to.
"And they don’t even know about our past
An Interview with
Tan Sri Chong Hon Nyan
by Alicia Choy May Yi, Daniel Kamal, Agni Nhirmal, Loh Kok Kin
Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Chong Hon Nyan was born in 1924 in Kuala Lumpur.
His wife, Eu Ngoh, was the Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Welfare Services;
son, David, is a pharmacist; daughter-in-law, Ven Yu, an I.T. lecturer; and daughter,
Su Lin, a doctor and Chief Executive Officer of Sunway Medical Centre.
Tan Sri had his primary and secondary education at the then
Batu Road School and Victoria Institution respectively. It was only after the
end of the Second World War that he entered Raffles College, Singapore in 1946
on a Raffles College Scholarship, to read English. It was then the only institution
for tertiary education serving in Singapore and Malaya. He obtained a First Class
in his diploma in English in 1949. He joined the education service soon after,
teaching secondary classes in the High School in Klang for nearly a year. He
then joined the Straits Settlements Civil Service embracing Singapore, Penang
and Malacca and was appointed as an Assistant District Officer in the Central
District of Malacca from 1949 to 1952. This was during the height of the Emergency
involving an attempted uprising by Communist Terrorists. Amongst his other
responsibilities was that of resettling settlers in danger-prone areas in New Villages,
at some personal risk.
He was awarded a Federal Government scholarship, conditional
upon his gaining a place in Cambridge University to read for a degree of his
own choice. He chose to continue his studies in English. On entry to Trinity Hall,
Cambridge University in 1952, he discovered that the English course included
Old English and Philology which did not appeal to him and he promptly changed
his course to Law. He completed his Law Tripos in 1955 but was recalled to Malaya
before he could take the Bar examinations as the country was preparing for
independence and required trained Malayans. His B.A. (Hons) was followed by an
M.A. degree in accordance with the practice in Cambridge. He was awarded a fellowship
by Harvard University in the summer of 1954 to attend a summer course in Politics,
Economics and Philosophy as a graduate student.
He was re-posted to Malacca and served as an Assistant State
Secretary until he was selected to join the Malayan Civil Service in 1957. He
served in the Federal Establishment Office in the Prime Minister’s Department.
Subsequently, he transferred to the Ministry of Finance and then to the Ministry
of Agriculture as Secretary-General before being re-posted to the Ministry of Finance
as its Secretary-General in 1972. He was awarded the A.M.N., K.M.N., J.M.N., P.S.M.
and D.G.S.M. (Malacca) for his public services.
In the General Elections in 1974, he was elected as a member
of Parliament for the Batu Berendam constituency of Malacca and served the
constituency for three successive terms until 1984. During that period, he was
also the Deputy Minister of Finance, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department,
Minister of Health and of Transport, after which he opted to retire from the Cabinet.
He was Secretary-General of the MCA until his retirement.
During the course of his public service he attended meetings
of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Colombo Plan, World Health Organisation,
Commonwealth Finance and Health Ministers’ Conferences, and Economics and Social
Commissions for Asia and the Pacific Region. He also visited countries in Europe,
Asia, Africa and South America as the leader of various official government delegations,
and was elected President of the World Health Assembly in 1982 for a year.
He is the National Patron of the Boys’ Brigade in Malaysia,
Chairman of the Trustees of the Tan Sri Lee Yan Lian Charitable Foundation and
Patron of the Selangor and Federal Territory Gardening Society. He was Chairman
of the Board of Governors of Montfort Boys’ Town, Honorary Treasurer of the Malaysian
Association for the Blind, Council Member of the Tun Hussein Onn Eye Hospital,
Chairman of the Council of Tunku Abdul Rahman College, member of the Lions Club,
Patron of the YMCA and independent member of the National Economic Consultative
Council appointed by the Prime Minister. He is an independent non-executive Director
of a number of public listed and private companies, and a member of the Board of
Governors of the International Medical University.
His hobbies include reading, gardening, the keeping of aviary
birds, tropical fish and dogs and other assorted pets, together with indulging
two grandchildren, Mathew and Emma.
In 2003, for Tan Sri’s invaluable contributions to the growth
of the International Medical University (IMU) and having served the nation with
selflessness and great distinction, IMU conferred upon Tan Sri the honorary degree
of Doctor of Science.
The Victorian interviewed him at his house on 21 July, 2003.
Your years of childhood and teenhood intersected with
the Great Depression, inter-war years and, of course, the Japanese Occupation.
Please tell us about that period and how you coped.
hinese parents were often obsessed with creating dynasties
to carry on the family name, so I was born into a family of eleven children! Earning
a meagre salary as a postal clerk, with little chance of being promoted beyond
office assistant, my father still ensured that all his nine children who survived
infancy received a sound education. Father used to sit at the table with us
while we read and did our homework, and we couldn’t leave the table until he
finished reading his newspapers. The slightest budge would attract his eagle
eyes, and his stern admonishment: “Why are you fidgeting?”. Over time, we
nonetheless became self-reliant as discipline and concentration became our
habit. Little wonder that all my five brothers and I qualified for the V.I.
Opportunities were very limited then and we had to do our best
in order to seize them. Joining the V.I. required us to be among the top 100 students
who sat the entrance examinations in the feeder schools of Pasar Road and Batu Road.
To survive five years at Batu Road School, I had to catch a 3-cent train ride
daily from my house in third mile Cheras Road to Sultan Street, before walking to Batu
Road School via Malacca Street. You see, at that time there was a train from Ampang
town to Pudu Ulu to Jalan Sultan, opposite the present Puduraya. Fortunately then
it was safe to walk as there was not much traffic and five-foot ways were uncluttered
by hawker stalls. When I was in Standard 5, my father bought me a Raleigh bicycle
with which I cycled to school.
Ordeals of other kinds surfaced at the V.I., the renowned school
of hard knocks. With their authoritarian approach, probably nine out of ten
teachers then would today be charged with common assault. The lumbering Mr Lim
Eng Thye commenced his science classes with “What does a Bunsen burner
burn?” and woe betide him who ventured a wrong answer. Down came the ‘Eng
Thye knock’ on his forehead! Another master, whose name I forget, frequently
kicked the tables of those who irritated him, while screaming “You
rascal”. Techniques varied between teachers. Generations of Victorians would
remember Mr Ganga Singh and his booming voice - even the walls would tremble in
fear! “Up!” he would command an unfortunate boy onto the bench, who would
then be the subject of humiliation of an entire class, if not Form. I also
remember Mr C. E. Gates, the Headmaster, whose detention class punishments included
weeding the cricket pitch and polishing hinges.
Discipline was also instilled via student activities. I was a
Sergeant in the Cadet Corps. Saturday morning parades were led by our commander,
the indomitable Mr F. Daniel, who returned as headmaster after the war. Assisting
him were teachers or senior students as Under-Officers and NCOs. I was also a
debater and the secretary of the Prefects’ Board. We inspected classes and gave
marks for class cleanliness competitions, checked toilets, monitored the field
and patrolled classrooms to ensure they were empty during recess (to prevent
pilfering). There were spin-offs to being a prefect, such as getting half-priced or
even free food at the tuck shop if the owner was in a generous mood! But above all
this, we had to be role models for others.
Numerous memories litter my mind. In those days, many a funeral
wound slowly up Birch Road, to the drones of melancholic band music. During recess,
we would sit on the slopes to watch these processions. We had assemblies every day,
usually lasting 10 to 15 minutes, where the headmaster would make announcements.
Teachers sat around the hall and at the back, while the headmaster alone occupied
the stage. I remember the day war broke out in December 1941 when very unnerving
announcement was made about it at assembly. During the war, I worked in the Census
Department, where wages were in the form of rice and cigarettes. Strangely, we never
took any census; our task was just to keep records of foreigners! Many of them were
missionaries from France and Canada, who were not interned but left in seminaries and
So in a nutshell, you learned to become a tough nut to
crack because you have a past rooted in honouring the tradition of hard knocks,
and learning how to sweat and suffer without complaining. How relevant are traditions,
hard knocks and obedience when the buzzwords for the 21st century are ‘change’,
‘adapt’ and ‘question’?
Blind obedience all the time could be harmful, such as in creating
extremists, but do not think that tradition is an evil word. The V.I. derived
much strength from its tradition of employing the best teachers, both local and
foreign. A Welshman taught me English Literature, and I was gripped by his
accent especially when he said “Yes man” or “No man”, with the ‘a’
emphasised as in ‘ah’. Then there were the Lewis brothers, the ruggermen who
taught our boys the game. They also used to sing to us songs like “Hey Noni
No”. These foreigners brought to Malaya their background knowledge of their
own country, so when we learned literature, we understood what daffodils were,
or why a Shakespearean idiom of a fair summer’s day was so evocative. Until
today, I continually leaf through my volume of the complete and unabridged set
of Shakespeare’s works, in large print of course, no thanks to my failing
Sometimes, change is necessary. For example, entry into the V.I.
now is no longer restricted to just Batu Road and Pasar Road Schools, but for any
student who proves himself in academic and sports fields. Such increased accessibility,
without diluting standards, is important. But the main question is how change
should be achieved. Speedy change can be detrimental. Notice the social movement
of the last 20 to 30 years, where the education system has been continually
transformed while professions in industries like value-added manufacturing and
information technology have boomed. Bewildered by such changes, many graduates
now prefer to work in sectors other than teaching. I remember when teaching
was an immensely cherished profession; teachers would visit students in trouble
or would stay back in school to give extra tuition at no cost. The V.I. teachers
were like that in my time and, hence, they were very respected.
You ask whether we should question ideas. Well, it is very central
to being human. For instance, with hindsight, I question the merits of double
promotion, where in our time, high achievers could jump from Standard 1 to Standard
3, and then from Standard 3 to Standard 5. Speed comes at the expense of giving
the child a solid grounding in basic education. Also, it is important for people
to be among peers, as younger children tend to be bullied by older classmates.
This is one example of questioning, even though many parents liked this double
However, there are some things that are intrinsically right
regardless of how much you question. Various traditions of the V.I. are such
‘intrinsically right’ elements - the hard tactics of the school ultimately
produced outstanding scholars and sportsmen. You know many scholars already, so
let me name a sportsman - Mobarak Ahmad was a fantastic athlete. He was father
to Ishtiaq, another Victorian who subsequently became the national record holder
for the 110 m hurdles, and an Asian Games sporting giant.
It appears that the foreign teachers in the V.I. were
dedicated to boot. But, surely, the lack of emphasis on things Malayan and Asian
must have been of concern?
Certainly! Subjects like English literature and the history of
the English empire, plus celebrations of Empire Day in May annually, were not
balanced with the study of things local. This conditioned us to think that everything
British was good, which of course was misleading. However, don’t get me wrong. Deep
knowledge of things foreign is in fact a good thing; what is problematic is if
there is imbalance. Equally, knowing in depth the history of Kuala Lumpur or the
geography of our Peninsula is important, but these come to naught if we do not
expose ourselves to the world outside.
A combination of all things good is what we should seek. My
daughter practised medicine in England for 17 years. Intent on mastering administration
skills as well, she did her M.B.A. at the renowned London Business School. When
she returned here six years ago, she brought with her knowledge of the efficient
practices of the British medical system plus administrative experience. Today,
she tries to impart these into the policies and practices of Sunway Medical
Centre, of which she is the Chief Executive Officer.
Likewise, I have tried to marry the best of both worlds in
whatever I do. Knowledge of things British was obviously ingrained into me since
school level, especially since I did my Senior Cambridge twice! Those aged under
17 years could not go to Singapore for further studies, so we retained ourselves
for another year in school. Normally the second year results were worse than the
first because we became complacent! We could have gone to the U.K., but there
were not many scholarships available besides the Queen's Scholarship. Instead,
with 10 Raffles Scholarships (five for Singaporeans, five for Malayans) and
Federation Scholarships, Singapore was the more popular destination. Armed with
a Raffles Scholarship, I headed to Raffles College where I read English, History
Upon graduating with a First Class for my diploma, I resumed
teaching at Batu Road School (where I had taught shortly before going to Singapore).
Then I took up the post of Assistant District Officer (A.D.O.) in Malacca. At that
time, there were three systems of civil service, and the Straits Settlements Civil
Service was one of them. My grandfather had settled in Malacca, my father was from
Malacca, and that was why I decided to serve in Malacca. There my superiors told me
that the only way to advance my career was by furthering my studies, which is why
I went to Cambridge University on a scholarship from the Federal Government. Equipped
with newfound skills and a broadened mindset, I subsequently returned to Malacca
to fill the post of Assistant State Secretary.
With a Cambridge qualification, you could have made so much
money in the private sector! Yet, you continued serving the public sector, be it
as a civil servant or, subsequently, a politician. What motivated you to do so and
how did you approach the task of public service?
Regarding my entry into politics, turn back the clock to the 1970’s.
Tun Tan Siew Sin, the son of Tun Sir Tan Cheng Lock, was then the Minister of
Finance, and represented a Malaccan constituency. A fine man (and posthumously
awarded a special award for integrity, by Dr Mahathir this year), he was
unfortunately prone to frequent illness. He had only one lung, the result of
contracting tuberculosis when he was young. Seeking a successor to Tun Tan, Tun
Abdul Razak who was Prime Minister then, spoke to me. “Chong, what do you
want in life? If you want to make money, you can. You can easily be a rich
banker. But why don’t you serve your country?”. Urged by the M.C.A.
president, Dato' Lee San Choon, as well, I accepted the challenge. Indeed, my
devotion to public service since my first task as A.D.O. had been guided by the
payback principle: Give back to society what you took.
Whatever task I have at hand, I must do it with great integrity.
I must be able to look myself in the mirror and say, without hesitation, “I
haven’t done anything wrong”, and I must be able to go to bed at night with
peace of mind. Very importantly, I have always striven to connect with the people
around me. In Malacca, I used to trudge through sawah to visit penghulus
and discuss with them the needs and concerns of the people. My reward was to
know I had done my job well, nothing else. Hence I always felt embarrassed when
villagers pushed an elegantly iced cake into my hands, or secretly stockpiled my
car boot with combs of bananas and trays of eggs, in appreciation of my efforts.
But my greatest gratitude to the villagers is for saving my life.
Communist snipers used to lurk behind corners of roads, ready to pump bullets into
the running dogs (that’s what the communists called the British) and whoever
worked for them. My life was under constant threat. It was the penghulus who,
despite extortions and threats by the communists, dropped hints to me. “How
are you going home?”, they would ask. “Ayer Keroh road”. “Maybe
you want to take another road lah”, would be their reply. So you see, we
have to connect with people. During my three years of probation in the civil
service, I learned Bahasa Rumi and Jawi. All the Dato
Sidang who brought letters to me were glad that I easily understood them.
These languages aren’t difficult to learn, so long as you have a good
munshi to teach you.
It’s impressive that despite your high postings, you’ve
avoided having a high and mighty attitude and you’ve served people with your best
ability. It must have been difficult to retreat into a quiet life after retirement.
How have you managed retirement and what is your advice on how to live productively?
There's so much charity that can be done. Take drug rehabilitation
for instance. Detoxification is easy - three days’ cold turkey is enough - but
re-integration into society is much more difficult. Many former addicts regress
into their habits. One thing I do is to pay several boys (undergoing
rehabilitation) who come to work on odd jobs in my house regularly, so they stay
productive and get some income. We keep in touch with their families, so their
families do not reject them. I also helped the Montfort Boys Town. The centre
trains drop-outs in skills like carpentry, agriculture, computing and
publishing. Do you remember Godfather Pizza? Just before it closed down,
I acquired two ovens from it and donated them to Montfort. Eagerly, the centre
sent a brother to learn baking from a Dane, and today Montfort boys can make
excellent Danish pastries.
The point is this: We shouldn't isolate ourselves into our
own community, because human needs cut across race and religion. Montfort is a
Catholic centre run by the Brothers of St Gabriel, and I am a Methodist, but
that didn't stop me assisting them. My wife is also ceaselessly involved in
organisations like the Women's Aid Organisation that helps battered wives and
those suffering from domestic abuse. Starting with no money, they successfully
appealed to people like Tun Tan Siew Sin and the British Council to help fill
the coffers. Even the Raja Permaisuri Agong chipped in to help expand the
facilities of the organisation. The rewards lie in the results we see. Once, the
organisation received a phone call from a distraught boy from London, who asked
the staff to urgently visit his mother who lived in K.L. It was in the nick of time,
as his mother had not only been abused but was on the verge of suicide.
My wife and I often start up charity work and run them in the
beginning, but we always let others take over so that new ideas and perspectives
are generated. Young people are the force behind social change. Determine what
the present challenges are and always seek improvement. When I was Minister of
Health, improving accessibility of the health system was the main concern. "No
resident in rural areas should be further than 30 miles from a medical facility.
General hospitals and specialist centres should be set up in all major
towns", I told myself. Today, the challenges facing the health system are
different, with medical training being the hot topic. Fifty years ago, students
spent the first three years purely reading medical books, but today, many
students are thrust into practicals almost immediately upon entering university.
Partnership between institutions is another increasingly common phenomenon. For
instance, the International Medical University, of which I am Pro-Chancellor,
has partnerships with 22 universities.
Future challenges to the health system could include balancing
the mix of private and public health care. Stressed staff and overburdened facilities
in public hospitals make private hospitals more important and popular, though
expensive. But that doesn't mean public sector doctors are less competent. In
fact, most private hospitals gain their staff from public hospitals! This is an
example of a future challenge. You asked me how to live productively, so this is
my advice. Present and future generations have the responsibility of building on
the strengths of the past, improving weaknesses and achieving a better future.
To do this, you have to identify what the challenges are and how you plan to
rise and meet them. Give your best; only then will you live life to its
The V.I. Web Page
Created on November 30, 2004.
Last update November 30, 2004.
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